Sheriff Victor Hill files motion to dismiss

by Robin Kemp

This is Part One of a two-part report about inmate allegations in Jones v. Hill.

Attorneys for Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill have filed a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit by 12 jail inmates, saying the inmates failed to include CorrectHealth, the jail’s heathcare contractor, as a party to the suit.

On July 27, lawyers for 12 Clayton County Jail inmates in Jones v. Hill asked a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to expedite discovery in their case against Sheriff Victor Hill and the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office over the jail’s COVID-19 conditions.

On July 28, Judge Eleanor L. Ross recused herself and the case was reassigned to Judge J. P. Boulee.

The request by the Southern Center for Human Rights, ACLU of Georgia, and the American Civil Liberties Union includes the declarations of a dozen former and current inmates who say staff have done little to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

Rhonda Jones, 58; Randolph Mitchell, 72; Barry Watkins, 60; and Michael Singleton, 59, are named plaintiffs in the suit. Eight other plaintiffs are identified only by their initials.

Hill, along with Chief Deputy Roland Boehrer, Jail Administrator Terrance Gibson, Jail Security Operations Commander Kevin Thomas, and Jail Administrative Operations Section Commander Maurice Johnson, are named as defendants. They are being represented by Freeman, Mathis and Gary.

The defendants’ motion lists “Eleventh Amendment immunity, failure to state a claim, lack of standing, failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (‘PLRA’), and failure to exhaust state court remedies for their habeas claims” as reasons to dismiss the suit.

The ACLU says the PLRA “makes it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits in federal court.” The law requires inmates to exhaust all appeals before filing suit and to pay their own filing fees.

However, the inmates allege their internal grievances about COVID-19 and other issues were delayed, ignored, or closed without clear explanations or resolution of their concerns.

The plaintiffs’ brief in support of a motion for expedited discovery asks the court for permission to “serve on Defendants 22 requests for production of documents” within ten days of granting the request, which includes “all documents in the possession, custody or control of Defendant. whether or not prepared by Defendant, including documents in the possession of CorrectHealth,” the jail’s medical services contractor.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say they hope to show that inmates with COVID-19 symptoms are held with inmates who show no symptoms; that cells, bunks, and common areas are not sanitized “properly”: that inmates are forced to line up within one or two feet of each other for medications and meals; that staff ignore inmate sick calls; that new inmates are placed in general population “without adequately testing and quarantining them”‘ and that “the majority of the Clayton County Jail’s two-person cells contain three detainees, one of whom must sleep on the floor, thus facilitating the spread of COVID-19.”

Inmates complain that their requests for medical care are ignored or delayed and that written grievances they file via electronic kiosk go unanswered, even after the jail notes the grievance has been closed.

Defendants seek outside inspectors

The plaintiffs’ request also asks permission to “conduct an onsite inspection of the Clayton County Jail by two corrections experts,” Emmitt Sparkman and Dr. Fred Rottneck, accompanied by two of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Future U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ 1961 mugshot when he served 37 days at Parchman for disorderly conduct–the start of his “good trouble” on behalf of civil rights

Sparkman, twice named Warden of the Year, served briefly as Superintendent of the Mississippi State Penitentiary–the infamous Parchman Farm where the late Rep. John Lewis had been incarcerated for using a whites-only restroom during the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 2002, he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Institutions for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

Rottneck was a lead physician and medical director of the St. Louis County Jail. City officials there are looking into allegations that jail staff failed to investigate complaints in three states about Trinity Services Group, which holds the Clayton County Jail’s commissary and inmate meal contract, including a 2017 fine of more than $2 million by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“Plaintiffs expect that during a visit to the jail, these experts will be permitted to inspect the Jail’s facilities, speak with detainees confidentially, and document their observations using cameras, cell phones, writing instruments, and other necessary equipment,” according to the plaintiff’s brief. They “and any attorney accompanying them would wear full personal protective equipment.”

Jones v. Hill alleges that Hill and correctional staff did little to protect men and women with preexisting conditions like hepatitis C, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), high blood pressure, heart murmur, diabetes, breast cancer, and other health issues, from COVID-19 exposure while in custody.

The inmates also say they do not have clean towels or enough soap, that inmates are crowded together in cells and common areas, that cells and common areas are cleaned improperly or not at all, and that they have submitted multiple grievances which allegedly have gone unanswered.

They also allege incidents of excessive force by correctional officers, including Tasing one inmate in the head.

For the record

The records sought include, but are not limited to, those covering:

  • sanitation
  • hygiene
  • social distancing
  • intake and booking
  • orientation of new detainees
  • movement of detainees
  • sick call procedures
  • education of detainees
  • training of staff members
  • screening or testing detainees and staff members for COVID-19
  • dates of, and any changes to, policies that supersede previous policies during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • “all written policies, standard operating procedures, amd post orders in effect” since Feb. 1
  • all documents “reflecting written communications, including emails and text messages, between Defendants and officers, employees, contractors, and/or staff members” about COVID-19 “instructions, orders, training plans, and training materials” since March 1
  • “records sufficient to depict the physical layout of the entire Jail, including, if available, records depicting the features and dimensions of cells, common areas, offices, and other areas of the Jail” and “areas designated for isolation, quarantine, and/or cohorting confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.”
  • Each inmate’s “name, age, gender, housing unit assignment, cell assignment, and similar identifying information” on April 23-27 and July 23-27
  • detailed COVID-19 testing information “to date”
  • all communications between “any Defendant and CorrectHealth regarding the testing and treatment of detainees suspected or known to have COVID-19, including who to test, the results of such tests, and the provision of medical care to persons presenting symptoms of COVID-19”
  • all information given to inmates about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and when it was first given
  • “the number, certification, and shifts of the medical staff currently assigned to the jail (including doctors and nurses)”
  • “the number of beds in the Jail’s infirmary, the number of ventilators in the Jail’s possession, the number of negative pressure rooms within the Jail, and the amount and types of personal protective equipment currently available to staff and detainees”
  • all written communications between jail staff and CorrectHealth, Georgia Department of Public Health, Clayton County Health District, and Dr. Olatanwa Adewale, the district epidemiologist, “related to COVID-19 testing, test results, prevention, and mitigation measures at the Jail.”
  • “all documents showing the efforts made by Defendants to identify detainees who may be medically vulnerable to COVID-19,” as well as any list of medically-vulnerable inmates and what jail staff should do “to protect those detainees from the spread of the virus”
  • all electronically-submitted sick calls or medical requests from inmates, and the jail’s responses, since March 1
  • all electronically-submitted grievances and appeals since March 1
  • “the number of detainees held in medical isolation for exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 between March 1, 2020 and the present, and the dates in which each person remained in isolation”
  • documentation of “the number of detainees who were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 while under the Jail’s custody and who you know later died”
  • number of “security staff” on duty and their assigned posts from July 10 through July 20
  • copies of all purchase orders and receipts for protective masks, soap for detainees, hand sanitizer other than soap, protective gloves “such as vinyl or latex examination gloves,” and surface cleaning materials since March 1
  • “copies of all logs or logbooks for cell housing unit 3, cell housing unit 5, open dormitory 3, and the officer in charge of the jail, reflecting entries made during the months of May and June 2020”
  • “procedures, criteria, and officials with authority to release detainees prior to the completion of a sentence, on home confinement, and for any other reason committed to the sheriff’s discretion
  • records explaining why Mitchell was released, “who initiated the process of releasing him, and who determined he would be released”
  • records refuting plaintiff W.L.M.’s “factual allegation(s)” in paragraphs 4, 9, 10, 16, 21, 24, 25, 33, 34, and 35 of his declaration
  • records refuting Singleton’s “factual allegation(s)” in paragraphs 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, and 13 of his declaration

Some at-risk inmates could die before trial

“I go to the medical unit three times per week to have my blood drawn and my blood pressure checked….I wait in a crowded cage with up to about 20 other women. Some people wear masks; some do not. There is not enough space for us to stay six feet apart. We wait in the cage until our names are called.”

— Rhonda Jones, 58, lead plaintiff, Housing Unit 3, Pod 3, Clayton County Jail

In her sworn statement, Jones said she suffers from COPD and hepatitis C. “I have been hospitalized for pneumonia twice in the past 8 months,” she said. “I was hospitalized for 3 days in February 2020 and for 7 days in October 2019….My health status puts me at special risk for a bad outcome if I get sick with the coronavirus.”

Despite this, Jones said, “I have not received any information about COVID-19 and its symptoms from either the jail or the medical staff. There are no signs in the jail telling us what we should be doing to protect ourselves.”

Jones, who is from Las Vegas, has been in the jail since April 9 on an aggravated assault charge. She is being held on $10,000 bond and $1,200 in fees.

Shared filthy water, strips of clothing to “clean” cell

Mitchell, who is retired from the Ford assembly line in Hapeville and does “some lawn care and yard work to earn enough of a living,” has served 10 months of a 12-month sentence for misdemeanor simple battery.

“…an inmate worker gave us a mop bucket with dirty water, but no mop in it. If there was cleaning product in it, I could not tell. We poured some of the water into the sink and used toilet paper to wipe it around the sink basin and knob. We also wiped the door handle and other surfaces with toilet paper….Sometimes we use our towels or bits of our clothes as rags for cell-cleaning….If I use my towel to clean the cell, then I can’t use that towel for anything else, like drying off after a shower.”

— Randolph Mitchell, 72, named plaintiff, Housing Unit 5, Cell 504, Clayton County Jail

Mitchell says he shares a cell with two other men, one of whom “sleeps on the floor with his head near the toilet.” Like other inmates, he spends 23 hours a day in that cell, with only one hour in a commpon area where he competes with eleven other inmates “in a hurry to use the phones, showers, toilet, and the kiosk during the limited time we get out of our cells. The surfaces of the phones, showers, toilets, and kiosks are not cleaned between uses.” Although he describes seeing “a covered, outside yard with a basketball court, I have never been there. I have not been taken out for fresh air to the covered yard even one time during my ten months in jail.”

About mid-May, Mitchell said, he began to feel sick. He says a friend helped him file a request May 15 to see a doctor using the kiosk, a shared device inmates use to file grievances, make requests, and communicate. “Nothing happened,” Mitchell said. He filed another request around May 19. Finally, around May 23, he said he was called to the medical unit. “By that time, I was short of breath and had headaches. I also had a pain in my side and my stomach was cramping and upset. In the waiting room, where we wait to see a nurse, there is no effort to ‘social distance’ people. There were about 12-13 people while I was there. We were sitting side by side in chairs. When I saw the nurse, I told her that I was having trouble breathing and that I had pain in my side. She said that I would be called back to see a doctor. I have not seen a doctor. I recently asked a nurse to be tested for COVID-19. She told me that they do not test inmates.”

Mitchell takes medications for high blood pressure and a heart condition. He says his doctor on the outside told him “that I have a heart murmur and will soon need a pacemaker.” The septuagenarian said jail staff gave him a mask in early June, one day after he complained to an attorney “that I was having to use a makeshift mask and could not get a real one.”

Let’s Make a Deal

Mitchell said he traded two packs of soup for a mask that another inmate had fashioned from “cloth torn from a t-shirt and the elastic from a pair of underwear.”

Inmates say “soup packs” or ramen noodles, the meal of last resort on the outside, are a valuable commodity inside the Clayton County Jail. They provide a lifeline to crews who miss meals while cutting the grass and picking up trash around the county during mealtime, as well as to inmates who can’t stomach the “gray meat” they say they’re being served.

The jail’s commissary contract was awarded to Trinity Services Group in November 2018. Trinity, based in Oldsmar, FL between Tampa and St. Petersburg, also handles inmate food service, laundry, and property management for the jail. Trinity bills itself as “the largest contractor dedicated to the corrections industry.” About commissary sales, it says, “Our superior purchasing power supported by our worldwide network and resources enables us to provide brand-name merchandise at lower prices.”

To that end, Trinity’s website notes the company offers “a fiscally sound and audit compliant trust fund software.”Trinity’s pitch to correctional facilities adds, “(W)e want to grow your revenue, optimize your profits and efficiency, minimize labor and secure your fiduciary integrity.”

Trinity Services Group’s Oldsmar, FL office

According to an inmate who previously spoke with The Clayton Crescent, under condition of anonymity and in the presence of his attorney for fear of retaliation behind bars, the going rate for a single pack of ramen noodles in the Clayton County Jail is $3. That inmate said other commissary items are sold at inflated prices and questioned where the money was going.

By comparison, Costco in Morrow retails a case of 48 packs for $9.79, or 20 cents each. Kroger in Lake City sells a case of 12 packs for $2.69, or 22 cents each. Kroger also sells single packs of ramen noodles–for 25 cents each.

Using those retail values–not any wholesale pricing the Clayton County Jail or Sheriff’s Department might receive for large quantities from a contractor–that’s a 1200 percent markup.

CCSO Standard Operating Procedure 7.06, which deals with commissary policy, notes that “The prices of commissary items are established by a contractual agreement. The prices shall be reviewed and approved by the Jail Administrator. All changes in the purchase prices or the offering of new commissary items shall be reviewed and approved by the Jail Administrator or his designee prior to their sale.”

The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request with the Clayton County Sheriff’s office for the contractual agreement regarding commissary prices. We also have asked Trinity whether it or CCSO sets commissary prices for ramen noodles, as well as whether those prices vary by institution or jurisdiction or are the same nationwide. We will update with the company’s response.

Face masks: cheaper than prison ramen noodles

A pack of ramen noodles on the outside costs just a few cents less than a single disposable three-ply facemask. Bought in bulk, as might a large institution holding nearly 2,000 inmates for an undetermined period of time, such masks cost between 29 and 37 cents each.

KN95 respirator face masks bought in bulk cost 98 cents to $1.15 each–about a dollar per inmate. However, the inmates say such masks are hard to come by and only certain people get them.

A few weeks before swearing his declaration, Mitchell said, “I asked an officer for a real mask because I was worried about catching the coronavirus. She said she could not give me a mask because masks were only for officers and trustees.”

Other facilities, including the Georgia Department of Corrections, are letting some inmates and convicts out early in an effort to relieve crowding and slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

In contrast, during the pandemic and leading up to elections, Hill has amped up arrests in two high-profile crackdowns, Operation Carmen and Operation Gabriel. By Hill’s count, the dragnets yielded at least 882 arrests between approximately April 11 and July 9. CCSO does not post a current inmate headcount by number on its website, although it does list current inmates going back 30 days.

Because his sentence is almost up, Mitchell said he asked whether he could get early release or “good time.”

“But the officer said no. I was told I can’t get ‘good time’ because only trustees get it.”

Mitchell said he asked another inmate to help him file a grievance “about how the jail is not doing what it should to stop the outbreak of coronavirus. The kiosk screen showed that I had ‘used up’ all my grievances and could not file any more.”

“I don’t think I have ever received a response to any grievance that was put into the kiosk on my behalf.”

Mourning in limbo

Watkins, an insulin-dependent diabetic from Winder, has been in jail since Aug. 31, 2018 on theft charges. His case was on the April 20 jury trial calendar. By then, Chief Justice Harold D. Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia had issued a statewide judicial emergency and extended it, temporarily suspending jury pools due to COVID-19. Watkins’ bail is $5,500 and his fees are $750. Since he has been in the Clayton County Jail, both his wife and a granddaughter have died.

Twice a day, about 3 p.m. and 3 a.m., he and 10 or 15 other diabetic inmates in his dorm are let out for “insulin call” in the medical waiting room, where “we form a single file line as we wait to be called in to have our blood sugar tested and receive our insulin.” Depending on the day, as few as 20 or as many as 75 people are “lined up within a few feet of one another. The jail has not taken any steps to change the insulin call protocol to better protect us during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In his declaration, Watkins also said his 7-by-11 feet, two-person cell houses three men: “That is not unusual; on a typical day almost every one of the 16 cells in my dorm has three people in the cell. The third person sleeps on the floor, next to the toilet.”

“My underclothes have not been taken to be laundered in over a month….In the 21 months I have been at the jail, my towel has never been laundered. Those of us with working toilets wash our towels and underclothes in the toilet.”

— Barry Watkins, 60, named plaintiff, Housing Unit 5, Pod 1, Clayton County Jail

When he first arrived at Clayton County Jail, Watkins said, inmates were able to spend four hours a day outside their cells. “Since March, however,” he said, “we only get about 60 to 90 minutes out of our cells each day.” That time is usually split between morning and afternoon. “The officer on duty often lets us out of our cells late and instructs us to return to our cells early,” he said. “My cell group’s out of cell time in the morning is usually cut off early by lunch. There are also many days when the officer on duty only lets us out once. On a typical day, I spend nearly 23 hours inside my cell.”

Watkins corroborates Mitchell’s account of the rush for shared phones, showers, and the kiosk during the break, exacerbated by broken equipment: “Three of the five phones do not work. People do not keep six feet of distance between them, particularly when using the showers, phones, or the kiosk.”

Like Mitchell, Watkins says he has not been outside since his detention: “In 21 months at the jail, I have never been allowed out into the ‘yard.'” Both men say they cannot get a shave or haircut and that the laundry is insufficient to meet basic hygiene.

Cleaning without strong solutions

Once word got out about COVID-19 in the jail, Watkins said, the way the dorm was cleaned changed briefly.

“In mid-May, after it became known. that there was a serious outbreak of coronavirus at the jail, the trustees stopped coming to our dorm and regular detainees were put in charges of cleaning,” Watkins said. “The regular detainees took it upon themselves to clean more regularly. Specifically, they started mopping more frequently, cleaning out the showers, and wiping down the phones. They still did not have access to bleach or strong cleaning solutions. This uptick in cleaning lasted for a little over two weeks. In late May, the trustees returned to the dorm and the cleaning went back to the way it had been before.”

Since then, he added, “I have not observed the jail take any coordinated effort to improve sanitation or hygiene in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Watkins also spoke of the bucket of dirty water shared for “cleaning” purposes.

“My understanding is that there is one mop for the entire housing unit,” he said. “Since hearing about COVID-19, we have occasionally asked the officer on duty for bleach or any chemicals that kill viruses and bacteria, but they never given us anything like that as far as I know.”

Down with the sickness

Watkins said no one in his dorm had a mask “until recently.” He said he made a mask out of “a pair of boxer briefs. At the end of May, I was given a blue surgical mask. I think it is because I am diabetic. That mask has not been cleaned or replaced.”

However, that was after he “became extremely sick” with “a fever, a cough, diarrhea, and aches all over my body. I could barely move, and I couldn’t eat. I relied heavily on my cellmate, A.R., for assistance. I was sick for nearly two weeks, and I still feel as though I am recovering from it.” About a week into his illness, Watkins said, he asked a nurse for help. “She told me that I did not have a fever and sent me back to my cell.”

Soon after, one of his cellmates “became sick and started vomiting in our cell. I used the emergency assistance button to call an officer. Over the intercom, the officer told me that they would not come check on my cellmate ‘unless he is passed out or bleeding.'”

Watkins put in a medical request on his cellmate’s behalf. Two days later, his cellie was called to the medical unit. About an hour later, they allegedly sent him back, saying he he had no fever.

By mid-May, Watkins asked a nurse for a coronavirus test but was denied.

“I told her that my cellmates and I had all been sick with symptoms related to COVID-19 and that we were concerned we might have the virus,” he said. “The nurse told me that I couldn’t receive a test if I wasn’t running a fever.” She did not take his temperature. Watkins said that, at the time, he didn’t know whether anyone in his dorm had been tested. Since then, he said, “I have heard that some trustees have been tested.”

No clean towel in 21 months

Clean clothes and towels are not readily available, according to Watkins and other inmates who cite ongoing issues with the jail’s plumbing and laundry facilities.

“I have not received a clean jail-issued jumpsuit in one week,” Watkins said. “Sometimes it takes two weeks to get a jumpsuit. My underclothes have not been taken to be laundered in over a month….In the 21 months I have been at the jail, my towel has never been laundered. Those of us with working toilets wash our towels and underclothes in the toilet.”

Dryer maintenance, safety at issue

“The inmate worker said that they had been complaining that the the dryer was broken for months to get it fixed. The dryer would get hot but the spindle wasn’t spinning. So they would put the clothes in there, you know, let it sit for a while, let the air get it. Then they go in there and toss the clothes and then close the door and they’ll let the heat hit it again for a little while longer. An inmate worker fell asleep and forgot to open it up for a minute….So the clothes in there caught afire….He’s still in the hole.”

— Clayton County Jail inmate who spoke on condition of anonymity

On May 17, Ofc. C.J. Broussard, that day’s morning watch work release officer, filed an incident report about a dryer fire in Dorm One.

“At approximately 0605 hours inmates assigned to Dorm One came to the door and told me smoke was coming from the dryer,” Broussard wrote. “I entered Dorm One and immediately saw smoke coming from the area where the dryer is located. I also saw Inmate Keith Eugene Hood LE #0057650 coming out of the area where the dryer is located with a jumpsuit in his hands.”

“I exited the dorm to notified (sic) Central Control and retrieve a fire extinguisher. I entered the dorm and the sprinkler system was already activated so I instructed all inmates to exit the dorm. Lieutenant (C.D.) Hill. Sergeant Burns, Sergeant (Anthony) Washington and Sergeant (M.K.) Seay arrived and assisted with moving all inmates out of the dorm area. All inmates were moved to Lower Release and Intake without incident and an emergency headcount was conducted.”

Photo of dryer that caught fire in Clayton County Jail Dorm One on May 17, 2020. The sprinklers went off and no one was injured. Three inmates were sent to Disciplinary Segregation. (CCSO Photo)

In a $270 work order from CGL opened at 7:06 a.m. and closed at 8:56 a.m., an HVAC technician noted, “At arrival found inmates using water to clean the area. Locked out and tagged energizer. Burn marks are present on the equipment, none found at switch that was tagged and locked out. High probability that filter was not cleaned causing fire.”

Photo of dryer that caught fire in Clayton County Jail Dorm One on May 17, 2020. The sprinklers went off and no one was injured. Three inmates were sent to Disciplinary Segregation. (CCSO Photo)
A bin full of water, fire debris, and laundry after a dryer fire in Clayton County Jail Dorm One on May 17, 2020. The sprinklers went off and no one was injured. Three inmates were sent to Disciplinary Segregation. (CCSO Photo)

Washington sent an e-mail to Sheriff Hill and other jail staff, detailing the incident and response, concluding, “After the initial investigation was conducted, three Inmate Workers who knowingly used the dryer, even thought it was broken were removed from Dorm One, and placed in Disciplinary Segregation until further review.”

Sheriff Hill responded, “Outstanding job!”

Clayton County Jail inmates Kenneth Hood, Lionel Scott, and Raynard Jones were sent to Disciplinary Segregation after a dryer caught fire in Dorm One on May 17. A corrections officer alleged they had “knowingly used the dryer, even though it was broken.”

One of the three inmates, Lionel Scott, had pleaded nolo contendere to a charge of public indecency and was sentenced to 12 months, 90 days to serve, with the other nine months suspended upon paying a fine. He was ordered not to contact the victim. Although the dryer fire incident happened May 17, court records show an arrest warrant and order for bond were issued against Scott on May 19. Scott does not show up in online inmate records.

In June, an inmate who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal alleged that an inmate worker had been sent to “the hole” after a broken dryer in Dorm 3 caught fire on his watch.

“They said an inmate worker had put some stuff in a dryer…. The inmate worker said that they had been complaining that the the dryer was broken for months to get it fixed,” he said. “The dryer would get hot but the spindle wasn’t spinning. So they would put the clothes in there, you know, let it sit for a while, let the air get it. Then they go in there and toss the clothes and then close the door and they’ll let the heat hit it again for a little while longer. An inmate worker fell asleep and forgot to open it up for a minute. You know what I’m saying? To spin it. So the clothes in there caught afire. They (CCSO) blamed it on that. He’s still in the hole.”

It’s unclear whether the dryer fire the anonymous inmate described is actually the May 17 fire in Dorm One. When The Clayton Crescent asked for information on the fire the inmate described as having been in Dorm Three, CCSO sent the Dorm One records.

Tased in the head

Watkins’ sworn declaration includes allegations of what he calls “excessive physical force” by corrections officers in the Clayton County Jail, particularly by the Scorpion Response Team or SRT.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill (center) with members of the Scorpion Response Team (SRT). CCSO’s website says SRT got its name “due to the forethought of our fearless leader” and is “worldly recognized for their professionalism and para-military discipline.”

In April, Watkins said, “one particularly upsetting occasion” involved an inmate, E.N., who got into a line from the wrong tier.

“During lunch distribution, the supply of chips ran out halfway through the line,” Watkins stated. “After people received their lunch trays, an officer called one of the tiers of cells back into the lunch line to get a bag of chips.” E.N. got in the line.

“A large SRT officer grabbed him. E.N. did not resist in any way. I watched as the officer taunted him, hit him, and shot him with a taser,” he said.

“The officer then brought E.N. back to his cell. As he entered the cell, the officer told E.N.’s cellmate [K.B.] to get on the ground.”

But K.B. allegedly wasn’t quick enough for the officer, “and the SRT officer used his taser to shoot K.B. in the head.”

Singleton corroborated Watkins’ story about the incident. “This jail is known as being. a ‘hands-on’ and violent jail,” Singleton said in his declaration. “Last month when a detainee tried to get a second bag of chips from the meal tray line, I watched as an officer beat him up and tased him, clearly using excessive force.”

CCSO policy on the continuum of use of force states that, after giving a verbal request or command and before using a Taser, officers are to use “(e)mpty soft hand control or take-down techniques (including come along, joint lock/manipulation, pressure points), or authorized chemical sprays.” Anything above those techniques, including Taser deployment, is considered “use of force” and must be documented in writing and with photos.

The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request for the mandatory Jail Miscellaneous Incident Report and photos pertaining to the alleged incident.

In 2012, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Taser International (now Axon) required CCSO and other law enforcement officers to retrain after studies showed being tased in the chest could cause an “adverse cardiac event.” At that time, CCSO training officer Sgt. Tony Kessler told Megan Matteucci, “It won’t be a huge change. It’s a difference of a few inches. We still have the back and other parts of the body.”

The head was not one of those body parts, according to Taser International, which “recommend(ed) officers shoot in the back, abdomen or thigh” and “avoid shots to the chest, face and neck.”

Axon’s current certification requirements note that “Axon does not retain certification data for end users. It is up to the user’s agency to maintain all training records, including TASER CEW certifications.”

The answer key to a Taser training exam posted on Axon’s website specifically states that users should fire at a target’s waist or legs, not at the head, and that Tasers should never be deployed as punishment.

Between 1983 and 2018, Reuters reported, 1,081 people have died at the hands of law enforcement officers armed with Tasers.

Studies show being Tased affects the brain’s ability to process information for about an hour afterwards. However, as Drexel University criminology professor Robert J. Kane points out, “people have died from being Tased.” A study published in March in the Canadian Medical Association Journal described the case of a police officer who was accidentally tased in the head and upper back. The officer had a seizure and was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-concussion syndrome.

Singleton, who has untreated high blood pressure and a broken hand and ligament damage from a car wreck, was booked on Feb. 17 for violating probation. He had pleaded nolo contendere in July 2018 to one count of driving on a suspended license. By November, his probation had been tolled and a warrant issued for his arrest. Singleton is not eligible for bond.

“Lately, I’ve been experiencing bad headaches,” he said, adding that it took him two days of requests to get an aspirin and a month to see a doctor, who drew his blood but did not “address the original reason for my medical request–which was extreme pain in my fractured hand.”

About that time, he said, he developed “cold-like symptoms” and asked for a COVID-19 test. He says he did not get one.

Singleton lives in a two-person cell that usually houses three inmates. “Because my cell is around the corer from the showers, water often seeps in under the door and spreads across the floor of my cell,” he said. “As a result, the floor is frequently wet and moldy, despite how often we clean it. My roommate and I use our blankets, towels, and facecloths to soak up the water and get rid of the mold because officers won’t provide us with other cleaning materials.”

Only two of the showers work in Housing Unit 5, Singleton said. “We are given no supplies to clean then and it’s been months since officers assigned anyone to clean.” Each Wednesday, he gets one bottle of bodywash soap, which he uses “to clean myself, my towels, my facecloths, and the moldy floor. I have had the same towel for the four months that I’ve been in jail. Staff workers have never taken it to be cleaned, which is why I have to use bodywash soap to clean it myself.” Singleton said he had not been given any other cleaning products “since at least March 2020.”

On May 10, he said, his bed linens were taken to the laundry: “I just got the back the week of June 22. So, for six weeks, I had to sleep on an old, bare mattress.”

Singleton said he’s only had one chance to go to the yard. That was on May 22. “However, because I was on a legal call, and our access to the kiosk, shower and phone is so limited,” he said, “I didn’t go outside that day.”

He also said that two grievances he filed in May asking about COVID-19 and cleaning supplies, plus an appeal about their status, have gone unanswered. “I saw on the kiosk that this appeal had been closed out on June 4,” Singleton said. “I don’t know what that means. Sometimes, officers block detainees from using the kiosk, which means they cannot submit medical requests.”

Watkins said his grievances asking for COVID-19 information also were not answered. “This does not surprise me,” he said. “When I have filed other grievances in the past, they were left pending for months without a response. I do not know of any way to withdraw one of my grievances so I can file another.”

Similarly, Mitchell said jail staff have not told him how to file a grievance. Instead, he “asked another detainee for help with the kiosk machine in my dorm. I don’t think I have even received a response to any grievance that was put into the kiosk on my behalf.” When he asked another detainee to help him file a grievance “about how the jail is not doing what it should to stop the outbreak of coronavirus,” he said, “(t)he kiosk screen showed that I had ‘used up’ all my grievances and could not file any more.”

Jones said she has filed “about six” grievances during her time in the Clayton County Jail, including one “about standing toilet water in muy celll,” but that jail staff gave her no written directions on the procedure.

“I never received a response to any of my grievances,” she said. Previously, the kiosk showed her grievances as “pending.”

“At some point, for reasons that are totally unclear to me, the ‘pending’ indicator was changed to ‘resolved,'” Jones said. “I do not know how the grievances are ‘resolved’ since I never received any response to them.”

Grievance procedures

CCSO does have written grievance policies and procedures in its employee handbook (SOP 9.01, in effect since Jan. 4, 2012). It states that “Inmates shall be provided a Grievance Form upon request. No inmate shall be denied a Grievance Form.” It also describes a special call, during each shift, for inmates to put grievance forms in “the Grievance Box mounted in his or her housing unit.”

After that, the Grievance Officer “shall collect all Grievance Forms, sign as receiving, and write the date and time received on the appropriate line.” The directions do not mention the electronic kiosk system. However, directions for staff indicate grievances should be entered into the Grievance Log and “the inmate’s ‘JC’ screen,” which “should cite the grievance number, reason for the grievance and the officer’s name which (sic) issued the grievance.”

Inmates can file grievances about three categories:

  • The application of the Clayton County Detention Facility Inmate Handbook
  • Staff or inmate actions
  • “Other matters concerning the conditions of care or supervision”

Inmates should first try to resolve the grievance in person with an officer. Then, they can file a written grievance “within five days of the alleged incident.” If an inmate is released before the grievance is resolved, that grievance “shall be considered closed.”

Only one “area of concern” per grievance is allowed and cursing or abusive language “may result in dismissal,” unless the inmate is “quoting accurately staff or inmate comments.”

An inmate who disagrees with the Grievance Officer’s response can file an appeal within two days to the Jail Administrator or his designee, then wait up to 10 more days for a decision.

Grievances about food or medical and care go to the Food Services or Medical Administrator for investigation. Allegations of physical abuse go to the Jail Administrator or his designee. If a grievance does not follow those steps, it goes back to the inmate, “with an explanation from the Grievance Officer.” A final decision must be made within 30 days of the grievance.

Asked to comment on the substance of the allegations in the inmate declarations, Sheriff Hill’s legal advisor, Alan Parker, said, “We are in the process of responding to this suit,” adding, “I will keep you abreast of the final outcome.”

Hill’s defense team says that “Defendants intend to respond to these motions separately and show that the conditions at the Jail are not what Plaintiffs portray and significant mitigation protocols are underway to combat COVID-19. However, as shown below, Plaintiffs’ claims are subject to dismissal for several reasons without the Court needing to reach Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, hold an evidentiary hearing, or allow for expedited discovery.”

While some critics have said the people being held in the Clayton County Jail deserve whatever treatment they get, simply because they are being held behind bars, many of the inmates have not been found guilty of the charges against them.

In addition, the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to be free of excessive bail, excessive fines, and “cruel and unusual punishment.” The legal site describes an example of cruel and unusual punishment: “an inmate held in a 150-year-old prison infested with vermin, fire hazards, and a lack of toilets would exemplify a constitutional violation.”

Those who are serving time on weekends for minor sentences like driving without a license or drug court say they are terrified of bringing COVID-19 home from the jail to their families on the outside. Others point out that a potential death sentence from involuntary COVID-19 exposure is a disproportionate price to pay, regardless of their conviction.

“I feel as though the jail treats me and my fellow detainees like are lives are disposable and unworthy of protection just because we were arrested,” Watkins said. “But our health and safety matters, too.”

Part Two: Allegations of abuse

Next: an in-depth look at allegations about plumbing problems, mold, a lack of feminine hygiene products, and abuse by SRT officers.

“I have been terrified for my life throughout my time at this jail. As I have told my loved ones, this experience has been like a nightmare. I have two children, and I did not think I was going to make it home to see them.”

— Inmate W.L.M., plaintiff, Housing Unit 7, Dorm 3, Cell 7312, Clayton County Jail, who tested positive for COVID-19

Learn more

Read the 12 inmates’ sworn declarations in Jones v. Hill:

Catch up on The Clayton Crescent’s ongoing coverage of COVID-19 in the Clayton County Jail

Read “Shock Tactics,” Reuters’ investigation of Taser abuse by law enforcement

See Reuters’ ongoing nationwide map of officer-involved Taser deaths

Read about the big business of inmate commissaries at the nonpartisan groups Prison Policy Initiative and The Marshall Project

Read about community response to conditions at Parchman

Learn how the Eighth Amendment has been interpreted over time